When Lowe’s home improvement chain bowed to pressure from a Florida conservative group last week and pulled ads from the television show All-American Muslim, it endorsed one of the more pernicious stereotypes in our culture—that Muslim is synonymous with terrorist.
The controversy began last week when the Florida Family Association, a small activist organization, called for a boycott because the show distorts “the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values” (The New York Times).
Letters and emails to sponsors followed and Lowe’s—and later Kayak, a business travel website—pulled its ads.
"Individuals and groups have strong political and societal views on this topic, and this program became a lightning rod for many of those views," the company said in statement (NJ.com). "As a result we did pull our advertising on this program. We believe it is best to respectfully defer to communities, individuals and groups to discuss and consider such issues of importance."
The cancelation of the ad was met with shock and disappointment by local Muslims.
Heba Macksoud, who lives in South Brunswick and is a member of the Islamic Society of Central Jersey, said she was hurt by Lowe’s decision and the limited comment the home-improvement chain has made on the issue.
“It's basically like, ‘we really don't care what our customers think,” Macksoud said in an email. “I just purchased thousands of dollars in appliances during Black Friday from Lowe's but that will be the last time I ever shop there again. I know several Muslims, throughout the country, who feel the same exact way -- it's a huge mistake for them because Muslim Americans, who number over 7 million in the U.S., are one of the most affluent and educated groups in the United States.”
Altogether, she says, Muslims spend about $200 billion in the United States annually.
Macksoud’s friend, Azra Baig, is working with friends to make that economic power felt, by encouraging people to cut up their Lowe’s credit cards and stop shopping at the home-improvement store “until they apologize.” Baig, who lives in South Brunswick and is a member of the , said there also has been discussion of a protest at the West Windsor Lowe’s store, similar to the one last week planned for the Lowe’s in Paterson.
Sohaib N. Sultan, Muslim life coordinator and chaplain at Princeton University, said it was “a sad day in America when a well-established corporation caves into pressure from ignorant bigots.”
“One of the responsibilities that come with success, I believe, is to stand up against hatred and injustice rather than endorse it,” he said via email. “There are thousands of Muslims in the United States who have been loyal Lowe's customers and have contributed to its success. Lowe's position on this matter has been very disappointing to say the least.”
The Muslims I talked with told me Lowe’s decision was a tacit endorsement of the kind of anti-Muslim bias that remains far too prevalent in our society.
“The stereotype is that we are terrorists,” Baig said. “We are average Americans going through the same struggles as any American, working hard, providing for our families.”
Sultan said the argument made by the Florida Family Association—“the idea that a fair portrayal of Muslims must include terrorists and extremists”—creates a false balance and “is the most bigoted thing I've heard in a while, even in this current atmosphere of Islamophobia.”
Macksoud agreed. Assuming all Muslims are terrorists is as logical as assuming that all Christians are molesters because of a small number of Roman Catholic priests have molested boys or that all African-Americans are criminals because they make up a majority of inmates in America’s jails—which is absurd.
Sultan makes the same argument.
“It is like saying that portrayals of Christians ought to include abortion clinic bombers or the like in order to be fair,” he said. “It’s just a ridiculous argument that is based in complete ignorance. It's an argument that seeks to divide people based on our lowest common denominators, rather than untie people based on our highest common values.”
The stereotyping of Muslims in this manner, he said, contradicts the inclusive narrative that Americans offer about the nation and “contributes to a growing culture of hostility against Islam and Muslims in this country.” This “threatens some of our core values as a nation—pluralism and religious freedom.” It drives a wedge between Muslims and the rest of the nation, and this kind of “fear-mongering causes psychological harm, especially among youth, in a community that is already under a lot of scrutiny and pressure.“
The timing of the controversy is interesting, considering the attempts by Irish-Americans to bar 19th-century illustrator Thomas Nast from the New Jersey Hall of Fame because of anti-Irish illustrations (NJ.com). The Irish were seen then as dangerous invaders and a threat to American values—a charge that has been made against Catholics, Jews, Germans, Asians and now Muslims and Latinos.
In each case, the prevailing view was built on a distorted portrayal of the targeted community. That’s certainly the case with the prevailing anti-Muslim stereotypes.
“We are highly educated and doing well,” Baig said of New Jersey Muslims. “We are volunteering. We are part of the community. We love our neighbors.
“Unfortunately, these people in Florida want to promote that Muslims are not the average American,” she added. “They don’t want Islam or Muslims to look good in any way. They want to spread fear.”
Macksoud said that, having been targeted by bias in the past, it strengthened her resolve not to tolerate racist jokes or bigoted comments—even from people she knows.
“Hate is a very dangerous emotion and our society needs to learn how to stop seeing those with different religious identities as alien and threatening,” she said. “Today it’s Muslims, tomorrow it could be anyone—even you! In the end, our shared humanity should come first.”